The Twins bullpen was Rick Stelmaszek’s dominion for 32 years, and a legacy that indelible doesn’t easily fade. To this day, when Paul Molitor wants a reliever to loosen up, bullpen catcher Nate Dammann lets Stelmaszek’s successor, Eddie Guardado, know with a wry shout: “Hey, Stelly, get the phone!”
“It’s always been our little tribute to a great man,” Guardado said Monday. “I’m just proud I had a chance to know Stelly and be his friend. But he was everybody’s friend.”
Stelmaszek, who oversaw the bullpen, organized spring training, tutored the catchers and kept generations of Twins players entertained with his droll and biting sense of humor, died Monday of pancreatic cancer in Chicago. Stelmaszek, the longest-serving uniformed employee in Twins history, was 69.
“He was an absolute character, in every sense, an all-timer. He was a central part of every team he was ever part of,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said of Stelmaszek, who served as bullpen coach under five Twins managers. “Stelly was a salt-of-the-earth guy, a Chicago guy, a tough guy. He loved the Twins organization, he loved the clubhouse and he loved the camaraderie that came from it. He had a significant impact on so many players, in a way that was uniquely Stelly.”
Oh, he could be unique. Before being promoted to the majors by Johnny Goryl in 1981, Stelmaszek was assigned to manage the Twins’ Class A team at Wisconsin Rapids, where he made it his mission to turn raw rookies into future big leaguers by whatever means possible. One day during batting practice, after a rash of bobbled grounders, Stelmaszek ordered his infielders to lie down in the dirt.
“He made us take ground balls on our stomachs. We lied down, and he hit rockets at us,” recalled Kent Hrbek, who went on to a Twins Hall of Fame career. “He wanted us to see how the ball was spinning, to get a frog’s-eye view of what was going on.
“He did some crazy stuff, but it was all for making us better,” Hrbek said. “After the season was over, we said, ‘That guy knew what he was doing,’ and we told him that many times.”
That competence is what kept Stelmaszek on the Twins’ coaching staff, even as the manager’s job changed. Billy Gardner kept him on when he took over for Goryl in 1981, and Stelmaszek worked for Ray Miller, Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire, too, before being fired in a coaching shakeup after the 2012 season. The 32-year run was the third longest of any coach with one team in MLB history.
His title was bullpen coach, but over the years, he added many more roles to his portfolio. “He took over coordinating spring training for me, which was very beneficial. He just did a wonderful job of making sure we were well organized every day, with everyone in the right place and knowing what they were supposed to do,” Kelly said, and Twins’ camp eventually became informally known as Camp Stelly. “People don’t stay long in that job if they’re not doing a good job. He was there, what, 32 years? That should tell you about the job he did.”
But his role as a tension-breaker, a consensus-builder, was even more valuable, Twins players said. Stelmaszek had a knack, largely with humor, for making teammates closer and the daily grind of baseball less arduous.
During the spring, for instance, Stelmaszek would shout to pitchers that fielding practice was about to begin on Field 5, holding up five fingers to make his point. “But his hand was so [gnarled] from catching so many years, his pinkie wouldn’t straighten, and his fourth finger went up about half way. So it looked like he was saying ‘Field 3½,’ ” recalled Joe Nathan, the Twins’ all-time saves leader whose entire Minnesota tenure was spent with Stelmaszek. “During the season, whenever things got intense on the mound, if a pitcher made a fielding play, we would always turn to the bullpen and give the Stelly sign. It would crack everyone up and allow you to relax.”
They relaxed off the field, too. For several seasons, particularly during card games in the back of airplanes, Twins players would pipe in an altered version of Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” Guardado said, whose main character, like Stelmaszek, was from the south side of Chicago.
“We changed it up to ‘Stelmo Brown, fastest man in the whole damn town,’ “ Guardado said. “He always pretended to get mad. He hated it, but he loved it. Stelly always put on that he was a hard guy — he didn’t want to show anybody he cared about us. But he did.”
Stelmaszek was a catcher at Mendel Catholic High in Chicago when he was drafted in the 11th round in 1967 by the Washington Senators. It took him only four seasons, during which he frequently faced Kelly in minor-league games, to work his way to the majors. He appeared in 60 games over three major-league seasons, for the Senators, Rangers, Angels and Cubs, but batted just .170 for his career, with one home run.
In 1978, after five more minor-league seasons, he retired and turned to coaching, helping the Twins in the instructional league before being appointed manager at Wisconsin Rapids. After being named 1980 Midwest League Manager of the Year, he was promoted to Minnesota, where he helped coach world champions in 1987 and 1991.
“He taught me the ropes,” Hrbek said. “He had a great heart, that’s what I learned the most from him. He chewed my ass, but the only reason he did it was to make you a better person and a better player.”
Stelmaszek was diagnosed with cancer in December 2016, and threw out the first pitch, with Guardado catching, on Opening Day last April. He was also honored during the 30th anniversary celebration of the Twins’ 1987 title team in August, and last week, the Twins announced that Stelmaszek would receive the Herb Carneal Lifetime Achievement Award in January.
He is survived by his wife, Kathy, and son, Michael, and legions of friends around baseball. One friend in particular — Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett — died in 2006.
“He loved Puck. They were a couple of Chicago boys, and they had a special bond,” Hrbek said. “He let Puck do his thing, but I’m sure Stelly had to set Puck straight a couple of times, too. He’s probably doing that today.”